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Whoa, Mamma! Duluth Playhouse breaks in new NorShor Theatre with ABBA musical

Vicki Fingalson (from left) is Tanya, Jen Burleigh-Bentz is Donna Sheridan, and Tanya Moore is Rosie during a dress rehearsal for the Duluth Playhouse production of Mamma Mia at the Norshor Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Courtney Groves (from left) is Sophie Sheridan, Amber Burns is Lisa, and Jessie Olson is Ali during a dress rehearsal of Mamma Mia at the Norshor Theater. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Vicki Fingalson (left) is Tanya and Derek Bromme is Sky during a dress rehearsal for Mamma Mia at the Norshor Theater. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Jason Scorich (foreground) is Harry Bright while Courtney Groves as Sophie Sheridan watches him play guitar. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Justin Peck (left) is Bill Austin and Courtney Groves is Sophie Sheridan during a dress rehearsal for the Duluth Playhouse production of Mamma Mia at the Norshor Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com5 / 5

You want bright lights, big splash and that new seat smell: When the NorShor Theatre opens tonight for its first show in more than eight years, audiences will get a Minnesota premiere of a fan-favorite musical within a newly refurbished space.

"It's the perfect show to open the NorShor Theatre," said Christine Seitz, director of the Duluth Playhouse, caretakers of the $31,000,000 venue.

"Mamma Mia!" is the jukebox musical set to the tunes of the Swedish pop band ABBA. It's the story of Sophie, a young bride who wants her father to be at her wedding on a Greek Island — but she is not sure which of three men in her mother's life is the right guy. Her mother, Donna, seeks respite with her former bandmates, the groom might be getting cold feet, and the men are all pretty sure they are Sophie's dad.

Meanwhile, as much "Dancing Queen," "Super Trooper" and "Voulez-Vous" as is possible.

The Playhouse got a shot at securing early rights to the show — and pounced.

"I'm not even an ABBA fan," said Jason Scorich, who plays Harry. "But doing the show, spending day after day singing the music, you connect with it. It's a great show to open the theater with. It's a communal show, everyone knows these songs. It's a story that's light and airy and it's packed full of fun."

The production is directed by Ivy Award-winner Michael Matthew Ferrell, who has directed a handful of Playhouse musicals including "La Cage aux Folles," "White Christmas" and "42nd Street."

Here are some things to know about the Duluth Playhouse's production of "Mamma Mia!"

IN THE NORSHOR THEATRE

Tonight's premiere of "Mamma Mia!" marks the first time the venue has been open for a staged production since it closed in 2010 — then a strip club. Among the final large-scale shows in its pre-rehabilitated state: Retribution Gospel Choir and Trampled By Turtles played at the Orpheum during that year's Homegrown Music Festival.

Scorich described the first view of the theater as "stunning."

"Being in the space is amazing," he said. "It's like stepping into a different world in a different time. Until (the marquee was lit) it felt like we had a secret club where we were sneaking in and rehearsing. As soon as they turned on the lights, it felt real and public."

According to the actors, the new space requires bigger moments and remembering to play to the balcony.

SIGNS OF THE OLDEN DAYS

Scorich, self-described as a history fan, said there is a crossover space backstage that used to be the bus depot. It's possible to see where the 6-foot tall posters advertising vaudeville shows used to hang.

"I love that it's been a theater for over a hundred years," he said. "You can feel it. Little ghost-y things everywhere. ... Theaters for me are like churches and libraries. Places you walk into and immediately feel something — all that energy baked into the walls."

GUEST ARTISTS

Jen Burleigh-Bentz, who plays Donna, was in the cast of the Broadway production of "Mamma Mia!" that played at Winter Garden Theatre in the mid-2000s. The River Falls, Wis.-based actor has been a part of a handful of nationally-touring productions and has worked regionally at the major Twin Cities' theaters.

"Every time she opens her mouth, it's a showstopper," said Shad Olsen, who plays Sam. "She's one of those incredibly magical performers and is a force of nature."

Olsen said his primary concern was playing opposite of her. So he has channeled his inner beast.

"I imagine Sam as a lion," he said. "It brought bigger energy out of me. I deepen my voice a little bit and stalk across the stage."

Courtney Groves, who plays her daughter Sophie, is a regionally-based actor who, in the past year, was in "Little Shop of Horrors" in Minneapolis and "Letters from Home: American Bombshell Duo" — a 1940s-style show for veterans.

The cast also includes local actors such as Vicki Fingalson, often seen in Lyric Opera of the North productions, Tanya Moore, Amber Burns, Bryan Burns and Derek Bromme.

SHOW STOPPER

Earlier this week, the cast had yet to hear a full-on, performance-level take from the stars. But a big moment has already been identified.

"We all love listening to Jen sing 'The Winner Takes it All,'" said Scorich. "We're always all back stage tuned into it. It's a song with real depth — and we haven't even heard her perform it yet."

SPEAKING OF ABBA

This isn't the straight-outta-the-70s band's only theatrical production. Olsen's favorite musical is also by the band's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. "Kristina fran Duvemala," which premiered in Sweden in the mid-1990s, is described by Time magazine as a "lush pop opera" based on novels by Vilhelm Moberg about immigrants from Sweden coming to the United States.

Maybe next season?

"I would love that," Olsen said.

OUT OF LUCK

Anyway, if this all sound terrific, you're out of luck. The show has been sold out — that's more than 500 seats and 15 runs — for more than a week, according to the Duluth Playhouse box office. There are no plans to add additional performances.

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